Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Yoke of Woman Wisdom

In the opening verse of Sirach, we read, “All wisdom is from the Lord / and remains with him forever.” Praise of Wisdom is echoed in other places in the Old Testament, including Proverbs, Wisdom, Baruch, and Ecclesiastes and certain psalms. Continuing its praise of Wisdom, however, Sirach continues: “Before all other things wisdom was created; and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom—to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties—who knows them? There is but one, wise and truly awesome, seated upon his throne—the Lord. It is he who created her, saw her and measured her. Poured her forth upon all his works, upon every living thing, according to his bounty, lavished her upon those who love him” (1:4-10).

The passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we heard on the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Matthew 11:25-30), comes in a section in which Jesus can be said to take on the persona of the Woman Wisdom, “speaking with the words and images attributed to her in Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch” (Barbara Reid, O.P., in Abiding Word, Year A, [Liturgical Press, 2013]).

Scripture scholars note that in the verses preceding today’s reading, the words and witness of both Jesus and John the Baptist have been rejected by the religious leaders, just as “Lady Wisdom” was rejected by those who were thought to be wise (cf. Sir 15:7-8; Wis 10:3; Bar 3:12). At the end of this section, Jesus, identifying with Wisdom incarnate, declares, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:39). And so, as Barbara Reid notes, “Today’s gospel is the final section of this chapter, where Jesus, like Woman Wisdom, is a sage who reveals mysteries, interprets Torah, and calls disciples.”

Personally, I have always found this tradition of identifying Jesus with Woman Wisdom of the Old Testament striking. To our Western minds, this can be a challenging way of understanding Jesus, especially since it requires us to use feminine language and imagery in a way that many find unsettling. In the Eastern Church, however, the mystical tradition has been much more open to this Woman Wisdom, sometimes understood as the divine Logos (the Word) who became incarnate in Jesus (cf. John 1:1-5, 14).

A contemporary icon of Holy Wisdom
based upon the traditional Deisis icon with Christ/Holy Wisdom
enthroned in glory with Mary and St. John the Baptist

This belief has even been expressed in certain icons of Holy Wisdom (pictured above), in which a female Wisdom (the Logos) is represented in direct connection with the figure of Jesus placed in close proximity to her. [We might also remember that the great church of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople was the religious center of the Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years.]

In the Western tradition of prayer and mysticism, only a few have embraced this facet of the Logos, most notably St. Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess and Doctor of the Church, and England’s Julian of Norwich (although early writers like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory Nazianzen used “Wisdom” as a title of Christ).

Jesus, speaking as Wisdom (cf. 51:26), invites us, his disciples, to take up his yoke—his teachings. Many will hear this invitation to “Come” and “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” as a promise of comfort and consolation. After all, he does say, “you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” But, there’s more going on here than just a promise that, through Jesus, we will find ease and contentment. While that is certainly a hope and promise contained in this passage, I think we also have to look at the passage from the Prophet Zechariah that we hear today: “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek… he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea” (9:9-10).

When Jesus is inviting us to take up his yoke, he is repeating his call for us to commit ourselves to a life of discipleship—in this case, he uses an image that very literally invites us to join ourselves to him in carrying out his mission. This text is a call to join in the work of peace and prophecy that is the duty of our King to whom “all things have been handed over by [the] Father.” The consolation we receive is that, like two animals joined by a yoke, we do not have to do this work alone—we have the strength of the Other to rely on as we live out our life of service. In many ways, this life of service is the great privilege we Christians have. Through Baptism, we are given the grace to actually share in the work of Jesus, not as servants, but as coworkers in the world, working to build up the Kingdom of God. Reverend Steve Pankey, an Episcopal priest and blogger, says it this way: “The yoke of Christ isn’t easy. In fact, it is impossible to carry on our own. However, the promise of Jesus is sure, the yoke is made easy by God’s grace-filled gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We can get a broader sense of what this yoke means when we read about another yoke in the Old Testament—the yoke of Woman Wisdom found in Sirach (6:23-33). This imagery becomes especially meaningful for us, today, when we understand that this Wisdom is the Christ who is speaking to us in the Gospel:
Listen, my child, and take my advice; do not refuse my council. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck under her yoke. Bend your shoulders and carry her and do not be irked at her bonds.
With all your soul draw close to her; and with all your strength keep her ways. Inquire and search, seek and find; when you get hold of her, do not let her go. Thus at last you will find rest in her, and she will become your joy.
Her fetters will be a place of strength; her snare, a robe of spun gold. Her yoke will be a gold ornament; her bonds, a purple cord. You will wear her as a robe of glory, and bear her as a splendid crown.
If you wish, my son, you can be wise; if you apply yourself, you can be shrewd. If you are willing to listen, you can learn; if you pay attention, you can be instructed.

And so, how do we receive the gift of Wisdom? Jesus gives us the answer: we must be like little children (cf. Matthew 18:3). We adult followers of Jesus have to “become like children” in order to enter the Kingdom.

I think this teaching is one of the most important lessons we can learn about discipleship. While the idea that we have to be like children in order to be true disciples (a word which actually comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning “student”) may seem ridiculous, it’s what Jesus is asking. Children are free from the sophistications, pretensions, prejudices, and illusions that we so willing make a part of our adult lives. Children are trusting and vulnerable, reliant and weak, and they depend on those with power to protect them and provide for them. As John W. Martens observes, “such reliance opens children to the revelation from the Son. Jesus’ way is revealed to infants because the ‘little ones’ model the necessary trust, dependence, and reliance on God the Father that the Son has revealed to them.” It is this reliance that we adult disciples have to learn if we are to truly follow Jesus—after all, he offers to share the burden of the Kingdom’s yoke with us.

Wisdom is available to all, whether we are young or old, rich or poor, strong or frail, intelligent or lacking in intelligence. Wisdom invites everyone to listen and follow and this invitation isn’t dependent on anything other than an open, receptive heart.

As we continue to live out our call to faithful discipleship, which includes engaging the many challenges facing our families, our faith communities, and our nation and the world, let us continue to think of the children who, sitting in the lap of Woman Wisdom-Jesus, hear the Word whispered in their ears. Let us turn off the sound bites and seek a place of stillness so that we can hear the Word speaking in and to us. If we can do this, we will find a way, together, carrying our common yoke, to do the work of the One who shares our burden.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I had a very strange dream last night and in it someone said "have you heard of The-Yoke-Woman?" and then again "look up the The-Yoke-Woman!". I woke up this morning and found your comment from 7/6/14. To my recollection I never recall hearing Wisdom being described in association with a Yoke or it being a female part of the Christ character. Ironically, I have prayed for Wisdom many times.

    Possibly just a scramble of words in my mind or a pointer, who knows. However, putting the dream before the words makes it profound. The dream involved witnessing a powerful figure (Rush Limbaugh) who had lost many of his faculties but was being guarded from public scrutiny. (future?) In my dream I was let into his office with a few others and saw the complete disarray. There were rats scampering on the floor (don't ask me why). As I was deeply troubled in realizing that none of us could continue to rely on his sharp mind and commentary, someone in the room told me to look up The-Yoke-Woman. Here, I thought The-Yoke-Woman was a talk show host.

    Another irony is that you close your post above saying, "Let us turn off the sound bites and seek a place of stillness..."

    I am interested in your musings.